Director J.J. Abrams leans in hard on our nostalgia for the previous Star Wars trilogies with the ninth entry in the saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. If a creature was cute, they make an appearance. If a Jedi Master was wise, their voice will most assuredly emanate from the Dolby Atmos speaker above you.
Abrams directed The Force Awakens (2015), which was also heavy on the nostalgia—the director there essentially repeated George Lucas’s story beats from the 1977 original. But Rian Johnson was not so sentimental about Star Wars mythology in his 2017 follow-up, The Last Jedi. Johnson’s story killed off major characters and pulled apart threads that Abrams had obviously intended to span the scope of the sequel trilogy. Johnson’s narrative pivots undercut lore established over the course of the entire Star Wars saga, most significantly embittering the series’ central character, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), from his core idealism.
Star Wars fans didn’t buy it. The Last Jedi provoked an online backlash that continues to this day, so Abrams is now back on board, left with the unenviable task of retroactively adjusting some of Johnson’s ideas, wrapping up myriad storylines he himself introduced, and concluding the entire Skywalker saga with some semblance of dignity.
As The Rise of Skywalker opens, the galaxy has been alerted to the presence of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), the Sith Lord who was the architect behind most of all that was evil in the previous two trilogies and has somehow survived the events of Return of the Jedi. The heroic Resistance receives word that they don’t have long before Palpatine will unleash a fleet of Star Destroyers, each with planet-destroying capabilities, against the galaxy and establish a “Final Order” to rule all.
The Rise of Skywalker is certainly fun and moves at an especially zippy pace in its first half. Heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are together through much of the story, and Abrams and Chris Terrio’s script extols the themes of friendship and camaraderie that were so pivotal to the original trilogy. Particularly engaging this time is the increasingly complex relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the evil First Order’s supreme leader. Their psychic bond was one of the most interesting aspects of The Last Jedi, and Abrams uses it to great effect here.
Carrie Fisher, who died in 2016, is given top billing as General Leia Organa. Her footage, made up largely from deleted scenes from The Force Awakens, is believably integrated into the new film. Though her dialogue sounds like it was largely culled from greeting cards, The Rise of Skywalker affords her character particularly dignified closure. Numerous other characters—human and otherwise—from the past are also on hand, among them Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), who is given much too little to do.
But the most significant return is of course Palpatine; the explanation for that return is pretty half-baked, as are the logistical implications for his final confrontation with the heroes. The film slows down in its second half and falls victim to one unfortunate trope of contemporary genre cinema: film climaxes that amount to a showdown with an all-powerful, seemingly indestructible sorcerer in some relatively undefinable setting. But with Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) gone, and Kylo Ren’s character too emotionally embattled to be a full-on villain, the Emperor was the only remaining antagonist for Abrams and Terrio to fall back on.
Star Wars won’t be going anywhere soon, with Disney launching the TV series The Mandalorian and introducing Galaxy’s Edge themed areas to its parks. But the narrative disconnect between Johnson’s and Abrams’s films illustrates that the studio has been working without a net on these movies. It’s obvious that few larger storylines were mapped out in detail; that’s especially dangerous when a filmmaker like Abrams, so fond of injecting moments infused with long-term mystery, is involved. Some questions The Force Awakens asked still weren’t answered by The Rise of Skywalker‘s end. But Abrams, unlike Johnson, has a sense of what the audience wants and needs—space battles, weird creatures, cute robots, and characters who have become friends. He was the right choice to direct here, pulling the disparate pieces of Star Wars back together for one last movie go-round. v